No doubt about it—online privacy took a beating in 2018. What was once questionable—the idea that our personal data can remain secure with sufficient safeguards—now seems merely quaint. Months after the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed Facebook’s slippery use of its users’ information, the company experienced a massive breach that compromised millions of accounts. Marketing firm Exactis placed 340 million people’s data on a public server. The litany of attacks on companies that included Macy’s, Under Armour, Ticketfly—and let’s not forget the entire city of Atlanta and the culmination of a five-year campaign by Iranian hackers that affected over 300 universities—approached dog-bites-man territory. Has it really been nearly a year since a hack of India’s biometric identification database allowed one to purchase the personal data of nearly any of the country’s billion-plus citizens, via WhatsApp, for less than ten bucks a pop?
All this porousness has naturally led forward-thinkers to wonder if blockchain-based solutions are the answer to our data woes. Companies like Civic are offering ambitious decentralized solutions for protecting sensitive personal information. Microsoft and Mastercard are said to be collaborating on a decentralized identity system—a welcome development, given the leak of credit card information belonging to Kmart shoppers and Delta flyers, linked to glitches in software the companies use. Original e-cash pioneer David Chaum, whose early work was inspired by a belief in the importance of private transactions, reemerged this year with a technology he claims solves some of the scalability and security issues endemic to that space. But most companies are taking a cautious approach to using blockchain to safeguard data. As the year came to a close, the security firm Netwrix estimated that blockchain solutions for IT management would rise in 2019, but not become widely adopted.